The quest for Grandma’s ham and bean soup: A for-now recipe

Not-quite-Grandma’s ham and bean soup with kale and extra veggies.

Roast beef. Campbell’s chicken noodle soup. “Yellow meals” of box mac-n-cheese, hot dogs, tinned corn and cling peaches. Corned beef hash, from a can.

When I reflect upon memorable meals of my childhood, I think less about the nutritious fare we had at home (sorry mom!) and more about the ones we enjoyed at our babysitters’ from time to time. A consistent theme? Cheap and easy.

A meal that stands out? Grandma Smith’s navy bean soup with plenty of saltines. Do not ask me why, but I’m always on the hunt for a good bowl now decades later.

Having been disappointed time and again by mushy, over-salted restaurant varieties, I thought: Why not make my own? So last year around this time, I tried. I trotted to Safeway and bought some ham hocks, a cooking experience that nearly turned me vegetarian. The result? A tasty, too salty and not quite right soup.

Next time, I’ll use the meat from one shank, and save the rest for another
meal. This photo is day 2 leftovers. Reference the kale color and the notes
below. Considering trying the cheddar chive biscuits, too.

So a few months ago, I tried again. Resolved not to touch a hock again in my life, I used bacon instead. But the beans refused to soften. Apparently they stay crunchy if you cook ’em with salt and word to the wise: No amount of immersion blending will fix an uncooked bean. And the bacon? Not flavorful enough.

Hoping for third time’s a charm, I attempted the soup again this time using two ham shanks and Great Northern beans instead of navy.

Now the good news? Shanks are decidedly less nasty than hocks. The beans softened up. The flavor was good. But was it Grandma’s? No. Reflecting on my three attempts, I realize now I’ve been over-doing it, trying to gourmet up what is a basic, bland budget soup. But if you’re looking for something with pizzazz and many more vegetables than Grandma’s, read on…

Ham and bean soup with tomato and kale

– 1 pound Great Northern or white Cannellini beans, soaked overnight!
– 2-3 quarts water (depending on whether you want a thicker soup)
– 2-3 pounds ham shanks (I used two meaty shanks) or a leftover ham bone
– 2 teaspoons herbes de Provence or Italian seasoning
– 1 large onion, diced
– 1 cup diced carrots
– 1 cup diced celery
– 1 cup diced red bell pepper
– 3-4 cloves garlic, diced
– 3 sprigs fresh thyme
– 1 can petite diced tomatoes or crushed tomatoes
– 1 cup dry white wine (optional)
– 1 bunch kale, torn
– Fresh ground black pepper
– Cayenne (optional)

1. Throw ham shanks, dried herbs, and fresh thyme in a pot and cover with water. Bring to a simmer and let cook, uncovered, for 60-90 minutes. Skim off foam/fat periodically.
2. Add veggies, softened beans and wine. Bring back to a simmer and cook for an hour or so, or until the beans are soft and the ham is falling off the bone.
3. Remove ham shanks to a cutting board. When cool enough to handle, shred or chop the meat.
4. If desired, before returning the meat to the pot, use an immersion blender or potato masher to crush the beans and veggies.
5. Add meat back to the pot.
6. Throw in kale, stirring to wilt it.
7. Test and adjust spices.
8. Serve with salad and crusty bread.

If your shanks are on the small side, consider supplementing with chopped ham
– I used two big shanks and while the stock was tasty, when I added all the meat in, the soup got really salty. Do not add salt until serving. Unless you enjoy salt licks.
– If you’re making this for a crowd, toss in the entire bunch of kale. If you’re planning to do leftovers, consider adding fresh kale when you reheat so it’s green and still has some body.
– Typically, I would sweat the vegetables before adding them to soup (sweating being cooking them until they start to soften), but I wanted to keep this a one-pot extravaganza.


Other damn good soups:

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